Baseball Short Story
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The New York Yankees of the 1950s: Mantle, Stengel, Berra, and a Decade of Dominance,
David Fischer (2019)
19-year-old Mickey Mantle joined the Yankees for the 1951 season and immediately electrified the base­ball world. Manager Casey Stengel saw the Commerce Comet as the replacement for the aging Joe DiMaggio in center field.
Although the Yankees were winning, the mood in the locker room was not always harmonious. The rela­tionship between DiMaggio and Stengel continued to deteriorate to the point that they now ignored each other’s existence. New York beat writers who traveled with the club had no difficulty picking up on the pal­pable tension between player and manager. When reporters approached Stengel to question him about the volatile situation, he replied: “So what if he doesn’t talk to me? I’ll get by and so will he.” The absolute discord between the two would hit a sour note during the July 7 game at Boston’s Fenway Park. It was the dog days of summer, and Casey’s club was flagging. The Yankees were only one game behind the Chi­cago White Sox, but they had lost four of their previous five games. Their play was uninspired. The three-day All-Star break would begin at the conclusion of the next afternoon’s game against the Red Sox, and Stengel admitted his team was fatigued. “Four or five of these players are dead tired,” he explained.
Stengel’s diagnosis of his team proved prophetic. In the first inning, Bobby Doerr hit an easy popup that DiMaggio misplayed, coming up short on the shallow flyball that dropped for a hit, allowing two runs to score. The next batter, Billy Goodman, hit a high flyball to right-center that DiMaggio couldn’t chase down, loading the bases. From Stengel’s point of view, those were two plays that a younger version of DiMaggio would have easily made. When Clyde Vollmer followed with a grand slam home run, the Yankees were deep in a six-run hole, which prompted the New York manager to make a fateful decision. He dispatched rookie Jackie Jensen out to center field. When Jensen reached center he informed Di­Maggio that Casey was pulling him from the game. With a large Fenway Park crowd looking on, DiMaggio trotted from the field with his head down.

L: Casey Stengel and Joe DiMaggio; R: DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle
Once again, Stengel had displayed a complete lack of regard for DiMaggio’s public stature. At least, that was how Joe perceived events. The skipper’s decision to make the move and replace the aging superstar in the middle of the game strained an already acrimonious relationship. Following the 10–4 loss to the Red Sox, DiMaggio boiled with rage in the clubhouse as teammates looked at one another in stony silence. DiMaggio’s left leg was ailing, Stengel explained, that’s why he removed him from the game. Nobody was buying what Casey was selling. The Yankees lost again the following afternoon, too. More than any other team, the Yankees needed the brief rest provided by the All-Star break. They had the look of a tired team and they had limped into the midsummer respite, both literally and figuratively, having lost five of their last six, including a three-game sweep in Boston at the hands of the Red Sox. The Yankees sank into third place behind the first-place White Sox and second-place Red Sox.
Mantle had fallen into a prolonged slump and was optioned to AAA Kansas City where he regained his confidence.
Toward the end of the summer of 1951, the Yankees and the resurgent Cleveland Indians—winners of 13 games in a row to start the month of August—played leapfrog with each other in the standings as the White Sox and Red Sox faded badly. Rookie Gil McDougald was the team’s leading hitter, and with DiMaggio not up to snuff, catcher Yogi Berra supplied most of the punch with Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer chipping in admirably. To fortify the offense, Mantle returned to fuel New York down the stretch. The kid returned to the Yankees on August 20, never to spend another moment in the minors. Now wearing the more familiar jersey number 7, Mantle batted .284 with six homers and 20 RBIs in the team’s remaining 27-game charge. ...
With the Indians leading the Yanks by only one game, on September 16 and 17 Cleveland was scheduled for its final visit of the season to the Stadium. To face the right-handed aces of the Cleveland staff, Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, Stengel chose Allie Reynolds and Eddie Lopat. For the opener of the two-game set, 68,760 people, the largest crowd of the season, jammed into the Stadium to see if the defending champion Yankees could stay in the race. Feller, one of the great pitching stars in the history of the game, was 22-7 going into the game, and was one of three pitchers, along with Early Wynn and Mike Garcia, to win 20 or more games for the Indians. Reynolds was pitching the best baseball of his career, and on this afternoon he pitched brilliantly, allowing only five hits and one run. The Yanks were leading, 3–1, and in the bottom of the fifth Mantle, batting third in the lineup, doubled, and Berra, batting fourth, received an inten­tional walk as Feller preferred to pitch to DiMaggio. DiMaggio, burning inside because Stengel had dropped him to fifth in the order, lined a ball into the left-center field alleyway for a two-run triple and a 5–1 Yankees lead, finishing Feller and the Indians for the day. After the game a pile of Western Union tele­grams were delivered to DiMaggio’s locker, congratulating him on his clutch hit. “Now when I get a hit,” said DiMaggio with contempt, “they send me telegrams.” New York was back in first place by percentage points over Cleveland in their tug-o-war for the AL pennant flag. The second game of the series pitted Lopat, vying for his 20th win of the season, against Indians sinkerball pitcher Bob Lemon, who already had posted 17 wins on the year and always gave the Yanks difficulty. This was another pitchers’ battle. The score was tied at one run apiece. It was the bottom of the ninth inning. Phil Rizzuto was at bat. DiMaggio was on third base. Rizzuto took Lemon’s first pitch, a called strike, and argued the call with the umpire. That gave him time to grab his bat from both ends, the sign to DiMaggio that a squeeze play was on for the next pitch. But DiMaggio broke early, surprising Rizzuto. Lemon, seeing what was happening, threw high, to avoid a bunt, aiming behind Rizzuto. But with Joltin’ Joe bearing down on him, Rizzuto got his bat up in time to lay down a bunt. “If I didn’t bunt, the pitch would’ve hit me right in the head,” Rizzuto told the New York Times. “I bunted it with both feet off the ground, but I got it off toward first base.” DiMaggio scored the winning run. Stengel called it “the greatest play I ever saw.” As the winning run scored, Lemon angrily threw both the ball and his glove into the stands. With 12 games to go, New York now led by one full game. ...
The Yankees claimed their third consecutive pennant, a 98-65 record lifting them five games ahead of the second-place Indians, but Joe DiMaggio, 36, his body aching, was no longer the Jolter—he slumped to .263 with only 12 home runs and 71 runs batted in. Yogi Berra was the Yankees’ most dangerous hitter now, with 27 homers and 88 RBIs. Mantle, in his rookie season, batted .267 with 13 homers and 65 RBIs in 96 games. Another newcomer, third baseman Gil McDougald, the only New York regular to hit over .300, was the AL’s Rookie of the Year, with a .306 batting average, 14 homers, and 63 RBIs. ...
The Yankees faced the New York Giants in the World Series.
The Yankees won the second game as southpaw Eddie Lopat throttled the Giants attack with his slow curves, scattering five hits through nine innings for a 3–1 victory, but Mantle wasn’t around to help cele­brate. He started the game with a bunt single and ended in a room at nearby Lenox Hill Hospital in Man­hattan, with his father in the adjoining bed. In the fifth inning, Willie Mays led off with a flyball to right center. Mantle had been covering extra ground all season, covering for the aging DiMaggio, in the twilight of his career. According to several sources, Stengel had instructed Mantle earlier to “take everything you can get over in center. The Dago’s heel is hurting pretty bad.” Mantle ran hard for the ball. DiMaggio did, too. This was the World Series, and the entire country was watching. An instant before Mantle was to glove the high fly, DiMaggio called, “I got it.” In reverence, the rookie right fielder pulled up at the last second, turned on the outfield grass to slow his momentum, and fell to the turf, crumpled in a heap. The 19-year-old speedster had stepped on a drainpipe and torn ligaments in his right knee. DiMaggio caught the ball, but Mantle was finished for the Series. He had to be carried off the field and rushed by cab to the hospital for surgery—the first of a series of leg injuries that robbed him of much of his speed and plagued him through­out the rest of his career. As teammate Jerry Coleman said, The Mick had “the body of a god. Only Mantle’s legs were mortal.”

L: DiMaggio catches fly as Mantle collapses; R: Mickey watching the Series from his hospital bed.
On the way out of the stadium, Mutt Mantle tried to help his son into the taxi that would take him to the hospital, but when Mickey placed his hand for support on his father’s shoulder, Mutt collapsed from the weight, his spine already ravaged by Hodgkin’s disease. The two watched the rest of the World Series from their adjacent hospital beds. Mickey had surgery and was sent home to heal. Mutt was given a grim prog­nosis and succumbed the following May. He was 39 years old. Mutt Mantle was denied watching most of his son’s major-league career, but at least he saw Mickey switch-hit in a World Series, right-handed in the first game, left-handed in the second.
The Giants won Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead on the Yankees. Heavy rains delayed the Series for two days.
When play resumed, the Yankees were able to return to their Game 1 starter, Reynolds, on three days rest. He was sharper this time around, and atoned for his first-game defeat by going the distance in a 6–2 victory, striking out seven, as the Yankees evened the series. DiMaggio, held hitless in 11 at-bats in the first three games, found his groove and paced the Yankees’ attack with a single and a two-run homer.
The Yankees won the Series in six games.
The 1951 World Series would end up being the finale for Joe DiMaggio’s baseball career. He finished the 1951 regular season with an average of .263, by far the lowest mark of his career. He hit .261 in the World Series, but contributed three extra-base hits and five RBIs. The double he lashed to right field off New York Giants 20-game winner Larry Jansen in the sixth game was to be his last hit. The Yankee Clipper was nearing his 37th birthday when World Series play ended. Following 13 seasons with the Yankees, he had posted a career average of .325 and 361 home runs. However, he felt he wasn’t able to play up to his own standards anymore. Still, he ended the season up to his standards in one way: with a ninth World Series title in 10 tries. Not long after the Series ended, DiMaggio arranged a meeting with team owners Dan Topping and Del Webb. He complained his body was aching and acknowledged his skills had deterio­rated. He told them that he didn’t think he could play anymore, so he had decided to retire. “I’m finished,” he admitted. Topping asked Joe to think it over during his barnstorming trip through Korea and Japan, hopeful that DiMag would reconsider. Joe agreed, but in his heart, he knew his decision had been made. Webb told DiMaggio not to worry about the money, and promised him the same $100,000 salary for next year. He offered to have the contract drawn up and sent over for his signature. DiMaggio demurred. It wasn’t about the money, he promised. He didn’t want to play baseball anymore. Several weeks later, Life magazine published a scouting report on the Yankees that included a sad perspective of DiMaggio’s skills. Andy High, a Dodgers scout, who had followed the Yankees for the final month of the season, had com­piled most of the report. When the Dodgers didn’t win the pennant, their front office presented the scouting report to the Giants in a show of National League unity. After the Giants won the Series opener, manager Leo Durocher raved about the scouting report, saying, “It’s great. I never saw a report like it.” The report couldn’t win the Series for the Giants, but its disclosure embarrassed DiMaggio more than any other player. It read:
  • Fielding—he can’t stop quickly and throw hard. You can take the extra base on him if he is in motion away from the line of throw. He won’t throw on questionable plays and I would challenge him even though he threw a man or so out.
  • Speed—he can’t run and he won’t bunt.
  • Hitting vs. right-handed pitcher—his reflexes are very slow and he can’t pull a good fastball at all. The fastball is better thrown high but that is not too important as long as it is fast. Throw him nothing but good fastballs and fast curveballs. Don’t slow up on him.
  • Hitting vs. left-handed pitcher—will pull left-hand pitcher a little more than right-hand pitcher. Pitch him the same. Don’t slow up on him. He will go for a bad pitch once in a while with two strikes.
DiMaggio’s friends knew that his pride surely would not let him play now that the erosion of his skills had been publicly exposed. And early in December, shortly after his 37th birthday, he phoned Topping, saying that he wanted to come to New York to announce his retirement. But he agreed to Topping’s request for another meeting. That’s when Topping and Webb played their last card: Manager Casey Stengel’s plan to use him on a part-time basis, with DiMaggio determining when he would play. Joe appreciated the offer, but could not agree to be a part-time player. His retirement was final except for the announcement. On the morning of December 12, at the club’s Fifth Avenue office suite in the Squibb Tower, the newsmen were handed a statement announcing Joe DiMaggio’s retirement. Joe was there, of course, with Topping, Webb, and Stengel alongside him. “I can no longer produce for my ball club, my manager, my teammates, and my fans the sort of baseball their loyalty to me deserves,” said a tearful DiMaggio. “Until yesterday,” Webb told DiMag, “we had still hoped you would stay. But, since you didn’t change your mind, it’s a sad day, not only for the Yankees, but for all baseball as well.” When the questions began, one newspaperman naturally asked, “Joe, why are you quitting?” “I no longer have it,” he replied.
Over in another corner of the Yankees offices other baseball writers had Casey Stengel surrounded. “Who’s your center fielder now?” one wondered. “The kid,” the manager said. “Mickey Mantle.”

L-R at Joe DiMaggio's retirement: Yankees GM George Weiss, Casey Stengel, Joe, Del Webb, Dan Topping